Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Retelling? Summarizing? Synthesizing?

We've been in the midst of our mid-year reading assessments at our school.  During this process I often think about our comprehension goals for students and the strategies we will teach to get them there. I think of three main ideas when it comes to comprehension and what my goals for students might be. I envision a ladder with three rungs, the bottom rung is retelling, the middle summarizing and the top synthesizing.  I decided to do a bit of reflecting on these three rungs  This  lead to some reading and research which helped me summarize and synthesize my thoughts!  Following are the big ideas and definitions I gleaned, I hope sharing them helps you reflect on your comprehension ladder.

Retelling~The Bottom Rung

Retelling is the first step, stage one.  Retelling is just that, telling the story again, in your own words. In it's earliest form, for our youngest readers and writers, it's about relating a beginning, a middle, and an end.  As students progress it's about retelling with an expressive voice, picking the most important parts to retell (character, setting, problem, solution) and doing so in the correct sequence.

When I think of retelling in narrative structure, I think back to a tactile tool I used to use when teaching second grade.  This tool called, "Braidy" was literally braided yarn with buttons and beads that served as retelling reminders with stops along the way.  The device helped students remember each piece of a complete retell. This is a brief view of the steps.

1.  Who is the story about-character(s)
2.  Where does the story take place-setting
3.  Kickoff-what got the story going-problem
4.  How was the main character feeling at the beginning?
5.  What steps happened in solving the problem-sequence of events (first, next, then, finally)
6.  How did the story tie up-the resolution
7.  How was the main character feeling at the end?

Here is a resource for more Braidy information

Another very simple, effective tool can be a child's hand, a retelling across fingers.  Starting at the thumb, climaxing and then traveling down to resolution.

Summarizing~The Middle Rung

Summarizing is the next hierarchical step after a retell.  A summary asks students to identify the key elements and tell what is important. To me, it's main idea in it's finest form, with specific textual evidence.  I like to think of it as the "boxes and bullets" of comprehension.

"Summary asks the student for a condensed essence of the text.  The reader's task, then is to reduce the text to essential bits and to restate them as succinctly as possible.  We summarize to generate a more manageable version of the information."  (Laminack/Wadsworth p. 69)

Examples of when we might summarize in daily life. (Laminack/Wadsworth p. 69-70)

  • Steps in an event
  • Highlights of a day
  • Rules in a game
  • Giving Directions
  • Recipes
  • Dismissal procedures
  • Fire Drill/emergency procedures
  • Library book check out and other school routines

Synthesizing~ The Top Rung

Synthesizing is the top of the comprehension ladder.  It is here where our students demonstrate the total essence of reading comprehension.  Here a student takes their reading and makes it their own.

"Synthesis asks for a contribution from the reader.  It isn't satisfied with condensing and restating the essence of the text.  Synthesis expects the reader to do more, to make the text personal and relevant, to weave a more robust tapestry than the text itself presented.   Synthesis expects the reader to leave the text with more than he found on the page.  Synthesis is like weaving.  We have threads from our lives that we are weaving together as we read." (Laminack/Wadsworth p. 78) "When we weave our existing insights with experience over time to make new meaning, we are synthesizing.  (p. 79)

Another way to support the idea of synthesis is from the AdLIT at The Ohio Reading Strategies Center:
"Synthesizing is the process whereby a student merges new information with prior knowledge to form a new idea, perspective, or opinion or to generate insight.  Synthesizing is a reader's final destination." (Bumgarner, p. 1)

That's my look at my ladder, I hope it's helpful to you as you consider the next steps for your students as they travel up, up, up!


  • Writers are Readers~Flipping Reading Instruction Into Writing Opportunities by Lester Laminack and Reba Wadsworth (Heinemann-2015)
  • Like To by Karen Haag
  • The Reading Units of Study-Calkins 2015
  • Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears
  • AdLIT-Advancing Adolescent Literacy Instruction Together

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